When a screech owl moved into our owl house outside the kitchen window earlier this winter, I felt lucky. I enjoyed seeing the consistent pattern of her behavior, even felt a kinship. Each day she’d stick her head out of the round opening right before dusk. I kept a pair of binoculars near the window to study her half-opened eyes. I, too, logged many hours at dusk over the years keeping watch on the backyard. When my four boys were young, I needed to keep an eye on them while cooking dinner.
This real-life owl reminded me of all the books I read to my kids with owl characters. Owl Babies, Owl Moon and Sam and the Firefly rotated often in our book routine. In those years, my boys knew the words by heart. I read to them nearly every night because one of the things I knew was that reading to a child was the most important thing. I parroted this phrase back to myself when worry gripped me that I might be falling short in other ways.
Dusk was the time of day when doubt consumed me the most. It started at the beginning of my parenting years, when I had two boys under the age of two. Someone always was crying in those early evenings. My mom would try to make me feel better.
“It’s why they call it the witching hour.”
In the toddler years, I dreaded dusk because it ushered in dinner hour as well as my daily worry about whether or not I was feeding my kids well. No matter what kind of mom I’d been during the day, none of it mattered when 5 p.m. rolled around. It was the hour I greeted my internal question while trying to figure out what could be made quickly that would make everyone happy and that wasn’t chicken nuggets. The guilt I felt when it was chicken nuggets or when I wasn’t making enough vegetables. If it was or wasn’t organic, free-range, unprocessed. The wondering why one of my kids was such a picky eater and if it was somehow my fault. The kitchen was my lightning rod for judgment, every day—was I doing enough?
As the boys got older, chaos defined dusk, who needed to be where and when, by backpack flyers, school projects, and after-school activities. Dusk was glue guns, a toddler in the car with Goldfish crackers, diamond-shaped dirt droppings from muddy cleats. It was coming home to a dark kitchen that waited for its Skipper, the question, what’s for dinner?
Dusk was the time I’d succeed or fail at transforming the kitchen into the warm evening hub that defined a sense of home, that would plant good memories. I carried around a load of knowledge. I knew the research. Eating together mattered, maybe as much as reading. It was linked to academic success, achievement on tests, positive self-esteem. It lowered the risks of children using drugs. These facts tumbled around my head at day’s end. My cold stove, at 4 p.m., elicited performance anxiety.
My first decade of parenting was marked by so much wondering, especially about which things mattered the most when it was impossible to do them all. I wanted to prioritize. I wanted guarantees. Was it broccoli? Unstructured time? Piano lessons? Eating together? Turmeric? My original stack of parenting books, collected in 1994, seemed charming in retrospect to the internet in full throttle.
“The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk,” said 17th century philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel.
My backyard owl operates on instinct. I watch it first-hand, while reflecting how I neglected instinct in my early years of mothering, rolled my eyes at my mother-in-law who told me “motherhood is on-the-job training.” Back then I’d sharply disagree, pull out a research article or book and read to her passages on whatever strategy I’d adopted. One long week it was the Ferber Method. I was struggling to get my son to sleep at night. I followed the advice precisely. When he was finally quiet, after long hours of crying, I was relieved and convinced it’d worked. I went to check on him in his room. My quiet entrance turned into a run when I saw that he had fallen asleep standing up, his head draped over the crib railing. For a long moment I panicked, sure he had choked himself on the railing. That was the end of the Ferber Method. With my next two sons, I crawled into bed with them, forgetting about any professional “sleep techniques”.
I grew stronger throughout my second decade of parenting. Part of it might have been parenting exhaustion, part of it was probably linked to signs here and there that my kids were evolving into fine citizens, kind boys. I found reasons to hope that my picky eater would broaden his palate when he ate his first Italian sub on a bus one day before a tennis match.
When that same picky eater, now a college student, texts me pictures of his own homemade chicken soup I regret all that worry. And, I wish I could retroactively send myself a video of my four grown boys clamoring to the same seats they used to sit in when they return home for breaks.
“You are doing fine,” my text might read. “Look at who they will become.”
These days, dusk is clarity, an understanding of what actually mattered. Dusk is the owl sticking out her head, and me feeling glad she is there. The power of presence is real. It’s the only parenting thing I really needed to know.
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